Monday, November 28, 2011

William Beebe and Otis Barton

William Beebe, left and Otis Barton with the Bathysphere 1931

William Beebe inside the Bathysphere


Bathysphere on display at the New York Aquarium

Entrance Port

Viewing Ports

The Bathysphere is a spherical deep-sea submersible which was unpowered and lowered into the ocean on a cable, and was used to conduct a series of dives off the coast of Bermuda from 1930 to 1934. The Bathysphere was designed in 1928 and 1929 by the American Engineer Otis Barton, to be used by the naturalist William Beebe for studying undersea wildlife. Beebe and Barton conducted dives in the Bathysphere together, marking the first time that a marine biologist observed deep-sea animals in their native environment. Their dives set several consecutive world records for the deepest dive ever performed by a human. The record set by the deepest of these, to a depth of 3,028 feet on August 15, 1934, lasted until it was broken by Barton in 1949.

In 1928, the American naturalist William Beebe was given permission by the British government to establish a research station on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda. Using this station, Beebe planned to conduct an in-depth study of the animals inhabiting an eight-mile-square area of ocean, from a depth of two miles to the surface. Although his initial plan called for him to conduct this study by means of helmet diving and dredging, Beebe soon realized that these methods were inadequate for gaining a detailed understanding of deep-sea animals, and began making plans to invent a way to observe them in their native habitat.

As of the late 1920s, the deepest humans could safely descend in diving helmets was 100 feet, since beyond that point the pressure becomes too great. Submarines of the time had descended to a maximum of 383 feet, but had no windows, making them useless for Beebe's goal of observing deep-sea animals. The deepest in the ocean that any human had descended at this point was 525 feet wearing an armored suit, but these suits also made movement and observation extremely difficult. What Beebe hoped to create was a deep-sea vessel which both could descend to a much greater depth than any human had descended thus far, and also would enable him to clearly observe and document the deep ocean's wildlife.

Beebe's initial design called for a cylindrical vessel, and articles describing his plans were published in The New York Times. These articles caught the attention of the engineer Otis Barton, who had his own ambition to become a deep-sea explorer. Barton was certain that a cylinder would not be strong enough to withstand the pressure of the depths to which Beebe was planning to descend, and sent Beebe several letters proposing an alternative design to him. So many unqualified opportunists were attempting to join Beebe in his efforts that Beebe tended to ignore most of his mail, and Barton's first efforts to contact him were fruitless. A mutual friend of Barton's and Beebe's eventually arranged a meeting between the two, enabling Barton to present his design to Beebe in person. Beebe approved of Barton's design, and the two of them made a deal: Barton would pay for the vessel and all of the other equipment to go with it, while Beebe would pay for other expenses such as chartering a ship to raise and lower it, and as the owner of the vessel Barton would accompany Beebe on his dives in it.

Barton's design called for a spherical vessel, as a sphere is the best possible shape for resisting high pressure. The sphere had openings for three 3-inch-thick (76 mm) windows made of fused quartz, the strongest transparent material then available, as well a 400-pound entrance hatch which was to be bolted down before a descent. Initially only two of the windows were mounted on the sphere, and a steel plug was mounted in place of the third window. Oxygen was supplied from high-pressure cylinders carried inside the sphere, while pans of soda lime and calcium chloride were mounted inside the sphere's walls to absorb exhaled CO2 and moisture. Air was to be circulated past these trays by the Bathysphere's occupants using palm-leaf fans.

The casting of the steel sphere was handled by Watson Stillman Hydraulic Machinery Company in Roselle, New Jersey, and the cord to raise and lower the sphere was provided by John A. Roebling's Sons Company. General Electric provided a lamp which would be mounted just inside one of the windows to illuminate animals outside the sphere, and Bell Laboratories provided a telephone system by which divers inside the sphere could communicate with the surface. The cables for the telephone and to provide electricity for the lamp were sealed inside a rubber hose, which entered the body of the Bathysphere through a stuffing box.

After the initial version of the sphere had been cast in June 1929, it was discovered that it was too heavy to be lifted by the winch which would be used to lower it into the ocean, requiring Barton to have the sphere melted and re-cast. The final, lighter design consisted of a hollow sphere of 1-inch-thick (25 mm) cast steel which was 4.75 ft (1.5 m) in diameter. Its weight was 2.25 tons above the water, although its buoyancy reduced this by 1.4 tons when it was submerged, and the 3000 feet of steel cable weighed an additional 1.35 tons.

From 1930 to 1934, Beebe and Barton used the Bathysphere to conduct a series of dives of increasing depth off the coast of Nonsuch Island, becoming the first people to observe deep-sea animals in their native environment. The Bathysphere was lowered into the ocean using a steel cable, and a second cable carried a phone line which the Bathysphere's occupants used to communicate with the surface, as well as an electrical cable for a searchlight to illuminate animals outside the Bathysphere. Beebe's observations were relayed up the phone line to be recorded by Gloria Hollister, his chief technical associate who was also in charge of preparing specimens obtained from dredging. Beebe and Barton made a total of 35 dives in the Bathysphere, setting several consecutive world records for the deepest dive ever performed by a human. The record set by the deepest of these, to a depth of 3,028 feet on August 15, 1934, lasted until it was broken by Barton in 1949.

In 1931, Beebe and Barton's Bathysphere dives were interrupted for a year due to technical problems and uncooperative weather. An additional difficulty in 1931 was the death of Beebe's father, and Beebe left Nonsuch Island for a week in order to attend his father's funeral. A second year-long interruption occurred in 1933, and was caused in part by a lack of funds due to the Great Depression. Although Beebe and Barton performed no dives in 1933, their work gathered a large amount of publicity when the Bathysphere was displayed in a special exhibit for the American Museum of Natural History, and later at the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago, where they shared the fair's Hall of Science with Auguste Piccard. Beebe and Barton also obtained publicity for their dives from several articles Beebe wrote describing them for National Geographic, and from an NBC radio broadcast in which Beebe's voice transmitted up the phone line from inside the Bathysphere was broadcast nationally over the radio.

Although Beebe attempted to ensure that Barton would receive credit as the Bathysphere's inventor and Beebe's fellow diver, the popular media tended to ignore Barton and pay attention only to Beebe. Barton was often resentful of this, believing Beebe to be deliberately hogging the fame. Beebe in turn lacked patience for Barton's unpredictable moods, and felt that Barton did not display the proper respect for the natural world. Still, Beebe and Barton both had something the other needed: Beebe for his experience as a marine biologist, and Barton for his mechanical skill. Out of pragmatic concern for the success of their dives, they managed to resolve their disagreements well enough to work together at Nonsuch Island, although they did not remain on good terms afterwards.

It is likely that Beebe became romantically involved with Hollister during his work at Nonsuch Island. An entry in Beebe's personal journal, written in a secret code that he used when describing things he wished kept secret, reads "I kissed her [Gloria] and she loves me." It is unclear whether Elswyth knew of Beebe's affair with Gloria, but if she did she appears to not have minded it. In addition to the open nature of their marriage, Elswyth described in a 1940s interview with Today's Woman magazine that she enjoyed the knowledge that Beebe was attractive to women.

Beebe continued to conduct marine research after 1934, but he felt that he had seen what he wanted to see using the Bathysphere, and that further dives were too expensive for whatever knowledge he gained from them to be worth the cost. With the help of Beebe's friend the physician Henry Lloyd, Beebe conducted an expedition in the West Indies examining the stomach contents of tuna, which uncovered previously unknown larval forms of several species of fish. Shortly after returning, Beebe set out on a longer expedition to the waters around Baja California, financed by the Californian businessman Templeton Crocker on board his yacht the Zaca. The goal of this expedition was to study the area's undersea fauna by means of dredging and helmet diving, and Beebe and his team were surprised by the diversity of animals that they encountered there. In 1937 Beebe went on a second expedition aboard the Zaca, documenting the native wildlife along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Colombia. During this expedition, rather than focusing on either sea animals as he had at Nonsuch Island or on birds as he had earlier in his life, he attempted to document all aspects of the ecosystem. Beebe described his two expeditions on board the Zaca in his books Zaca Venture and The Book of Bays, in which he emphasized his concern for threatened habitats and his dismay at human destruction.

The New York Aquarium

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